Alex Podlogar

Thinking outside the pressbox

A father’s pride

Published in the March 28, 2010 edition of The Sanford Herald.

Editor’s Note: Akeem Richmond, the former Southern Lee High School basketball star who now plays for the University of Rhode Island, will lead his team against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the final four of the NIT Tuesday night in New York City. Richmond and his father Eric have been connected for a lifetime by the game of basketball. This is their story.

By ALEX PODLOGAR

The father did the work himself. Working second shift, he had the mornings and early afternoons to himself and the kids. After his youngest son had shown such resolve toward the game of basketball, the father decided to give him something no other kid in town would have.

A full court.

So the father went to work, back-breaking as it was. It hurt the wallet even more.

Still, he did it, laying the concrete himself to give his boy what might one day amount to an extra advantage over all the others.

And then the father realized it was all wrong. Dribbling around on his own court in the back yard wasn’t going to help the son. It was the exact wrong thing to do.

So the father ripped up the new court, allowing the North Carolina Sandhills to take over again.

“Larry Bird always talked about the fundamentals being No. 1. I knew that if the kid could dribble in the sand, he could dribble anywhere in the world,” the father recalls.

“Just yesterday, I was out in the back yard and let that sand run through my hands. All I could think was, ‘From the sands of Lemon Springs to Madison Square Garden.”

His mother had already had three girls. The parents were hoping for a boy this time. The mother went to her doctor’s appointment, knowing that the doc would be able to determine the sex of the baby.

The father got the news and told the mother that it would be another girl. The mother broke down and cried, and yet the father turned away, snickering.

On and on it went, until the pregnancy came to term. The whole time, the mother prepared to welcome into the family another little girl. Only when she delivered did she find out the secret the father had been keeping from her.

A month later, holding his infant son, the father held the boy up in the sky as the sun danced around the two of them. His boy healthy, he asked the heavens for a basketball player.

“Man, God has blessed me,” the father says now.

The son can’t wait to get to the gate. The October aromas of funnel cakes and deep fried Twinkies waft over the family before they even have their tickets in hand.

Once inside, the son is shot out of a cannon, past the blinking lights and whirring sounds of the carnival rides at the state fair. Straight to the shooting booth he goes, the father — and the money — in tow.

The son takes the ball, squares his feet and hits it. Then another. And another. Oversized, goofy stuffed animals are pulled off the fencing and handed to the father.

A line forms, and the carney vendor barks to give someone else a chance.

“I went home with a lot of stuffed animals and always gave them to my great-grandmother,” the son recalls.

“They had to close the booth at Carowinds once,” the father recalls. “Even at 3 or 4, he always went right on past the rides and straight for the shooting booth. We had every kind of stuffed animal.”

The father is coaching his son. Of course he is.

They play a parks and recreation game in an elementary school gym and it’s clear which of the boys is the best player on the floor.

The game is gone, but here comes the son on a fast break. As he nears the basket, he elevates — and splits his legs.

He probably first saw the move a few years earlier when Vince Carter did it in the Slam Dunk Contest at the All-Star Game. The son does his own mini-version, taking the ball between his legs while airborne, then lofting a layup high off the glass for a dazzling deuce.

“People all immediately started looking at me like I taught him that,” the father says. “I was like, ‘That’s the first time I’ve seen it, too.’”

The son is 11 years old.

He isn’t even in high school, yet, but the son’s getting invites to the most prestigious summer camps in the country. He goes to Howard Garfinkel’s Five Star Camp, has his picture taken with the legendary recruiting organizer. A different kind of basketball game has begun.

Money can get tight going to all these camps. But the family, with some help from old friends, finds a way.

“People I’ve known since I was kid, they’d help out,” the father says. “All these years, it’s come from everywhere. The community has always supported us.”

After four years starring on the high school hardwood at the new school in town, the son has been through all the tricks of the trade. He knows them all — some of them all too well.

“They lie right to your face,” the young man says as his decision nears. “It’s amazing, but they do it. They’ll tell you everything you want to hear, then never call you back.”

He got calls and letters from all the big-time programs, but roster spots and scholarships fill up quickly. Programs from the mid-major conferences now have the most interest, though Jim Boeheim and Syracuse are still hanging around the periphery.

After months of agonizing deliberation without the help of his father — “I knew that if I said this is where I think you should go, he’d go there. But this was a decision he had to make,” the father explains — he knows he’s made the right call.

The coach has been up front with him from Day 1. The offense suits his style. He has a chance to play right away.

Then the phone rings. It’s the University of Georgia, asking for just a little more time.

The son says thanks, but he has made up mind.

First collegiate workout, a long, long way from the sands of Lemon Springs, the son, by himself now, goes up for his patented jump shot.

He never gets it off.

The defender — a teammate delivering a hard lesson and an unabashed glimpse of what might be an ugly future — is there in a flash and swats away the shot.

After the workout, the coaches tell the son what he already knows. He must quicken his release at this level, or the role they have planned for him will disappear.

“In high school, that was never a problem. I could always get a shot off,” the son says.

The son’s team is hanging by a thread. A raucous ACC crowd can sense its team is on the cusp of a first-half blowout. Put the team away and head on to New York.

The son enters the game, weaving around the perimeter on offense, hoping for the slightest of openings.

He gets one, slipping past his defender inside the 3-point arc, and pulls up. The 17-footer swishes easily through the net.

He’s in the game for this very reason. Running around screens, he gets open again, this time from behind the arc, and lets it fly.

Swish.

Later, the game close, the son streaks up the floor and his team has numbers. He deftly angles toward the wing and gets the pass. In the blink of an eye, he rises, his shoulders perfectly square, and flicks the shot from 21 feet.

Boom.

He hits another 3 in the second half, and his team does the rest of the work, finishing off the bracket’s top seed at their place.

As the horn sounds, the place falls quiet, and the father, who’s witnessed, by his count, more than 1,000 of his son’s games while missing “maybe three or four, and all of those were this year,” bounds over the railing behind his son’s team bench.

Look closely, with all those empty reserved seats, and it appears as though the son was the only player with his parents in attendance. The father and son embrace in a man-sized hug.

“It’s truly a blessing to have a guy like that in my life,” the son says. “I thank him for that.

“I thank God for him.”

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